Here’s the latest of our news bulletins from the ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
State of Nuclear Politics in Japan
The Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission heard testimony from several senior government officials this week, as it wrapped up efforts to determine the causes of the Fukushima nuclear disaster last March. However, it did not fully address crisis management issues, operation of cooling equipment, and delay in venting the reactors. The Commission plans to release a report in July.
Yukio Edano, head of METI and former Chief Cabinet Secretary, was sharply criticized for communications problems within the central government and TEPCO as the disaster unfolded, as well as his lack of understanding around the crisis, including massive evacuations that took place. One Commission member pointed out that TEPCO did not admit that a triple meltdown had occurred until May 12, 2011, a full month after the disaster occurred. During that month, Edano spoke at press conferences using the phrases “no immediate risk” and “just to be safe.” In response, Edano criticized both the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and TEPCO for their failure to effectively communicate with then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s office. Edano said that more than once, the administration first learned of developments through press conferences rather than being told directly.
In addition, Edano reiterated that then-TEPCO President Masataka Shimizu called him to request that all TEPCO workers be evacuated from the plant, a charge supported by former Prime Minister Kan, but that TEPCO has denied. If they had done so, the effects of the disaster would have been far more catastrophic.
The Commission also interviewed former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who admitted that Japan’s nuclear preparedness law of 1999 was ineffective. “The nuclear disaster special measures law does not assume a serious disaster. Everything anticipated in the law was inadequate, and we had to go through all kinds of troubles that we didn’t need.” He strongly criticized TEPCO and the so-called “nuclear village” in Japan for failure to effectively communicate details about the disaster, including providing adequate expertise about nuclear technology. “We could hardly get information. We couldn’t do anything. They were in actual control of nuclear energy administration and they ostracized experts, politicians, and bureaucrats who were critical." In addition, he said that NISA officials failed to provide needed expertise. “In the initial stages, there was no one who could explain the contents of nuclear energy.”
Members of the Diet began deliberations this week to establish a new nuclear regulatory agency, after the Fukushima nuclear crisis exposed NISA’s inadequacies and conflicts of interest as a regulator under the auspices of METI, which works to promote nuclear power. The new agency was originally scheduled to begin operation on April 1, but deliberations became stalled in the Diet. In the current debate, opposition parties are pushing for legally guaranteed independence, including control over personnel and budgetary decisions. The government is advocating for control of the entity by the Environment Ministry. Prime Minister Noda, who is hoping to restart the idled Oi reactors in Fukui Prefecture, has urged members to work toward a quick resolution.
Over 4,200 residents have filed suit against Kyushu Electric’s Sendai power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, in an effort to shut it down. The residents contend that the plant is not safe and their right to life is being threatened. The lawsuit is the largest ever filed against a nuclear power plant in Japan.
A Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) panel studying possible nuclear power ratios for Japan is sharply divided over how much nuclear power the nation should produce and use by 2030. The panel originally drafted five options, ranging from none to 35%. The latter figure was significantly higher than the amount of nuclear energy Japan consumed before the Fukushima disaster last March (26%), and critics charged that it flies in the face of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s pledge to reduce reliance on nuclear power. Eventually, the panel dropped plans to include the 35% figure. The new proposed ratios are 0%, 15%, 20-25%, and no prescribed ratio at all. Noda’s administration will pick one of the recommended ratios as a goal for power production by 2030; many expect it will choose 15%, rather than 0%, in spite of widespread popular opposition to nuclear power.
The Japan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC), which had been studying the nation’s fuel policy in anticipation of a revised “basic energy plan” this summer, has suspended its review in the wake of a scandal in which a working group met with members of the nuclear industry in closed door sessions and released draft versions of their report regarding Japan’s fuel policy. Wording in the report was later changed to favor continued operation of fuel reprocessing plants and the nuclear recycling program. Members of a JAEC expert panel are now calling for a third-party review of the situation. In spite of the scandal, JAEC Chairman Shunsuke Kondo stated that he believes that the Commission should continue to meet with officials from the nuclear industry.
Japan Atomic Power Company (JAPC) has posted an 8.9 billion yen ($122 million) profit this fiscal year, in spite of the fact that it sold 91% less electricity than last year. The company’s profits were down almost 28% from fiscal year 2010. JAPC owns and operates the Tokai #2 plant in Ibaraki Prefecture and the Tsuruga power plant in Fukui Prefecture.
Fukushima Prefecture Governor Yuhei Sato has apologized for prefectural officials who discarded data on the spread of radiation in the days following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, rather than conveying it to residents who were frantically trying to determine when and where to evacuate. Sato admitted that the majority of the data was sent in emails to employees who deleted them without properly distributing the information.
State of the Reactors
In the wake of recent waves of national and international concern about safety conditions at the spent fuel pool of reactor #4 at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono visited the crippled plant this week, along with a handful of reporters. Earlier this week, TEPCO reported a 3.3 cm bulge in the wall of the building that houses the spent fuel pool, which contains 1,535 highly radioactive fuel rods. The utility insists that the wall bulge does not indicate that the building would collapse if another catastrophic earthquake struck, but experts disagree. The roof of reactor #4 blew off during a hydrogen explosion last March, and journalists reported seeing bent pipes and twisted steel frames. Spent fuel there is not enclosed in containment vessels as it is in other reactors, placing it at risk for significant atmospheric radiation leaks if an earthquake or tsunami were to cause a building collapse or failure of cooling equipment. Experts say that if the spent fuel pool were to experience meltdown, 35 million people would have to be evacuated from Tokyo. One reporter allowed onsite admitted, “TEPCO said that the pool can withstand a temblor equivalent to the quake last year, but I was not convinced of that.”
TEPCO needs to remove the fuel rods at reactor #4 in order to begin decommissioning the reactor, but debris in the area is making that difficult. In addition, the utility is struggling to find a place to store the fuel rods. The nearby joint spent fuel pool only has room for 465 more rods, and 1,535 are currently being stored at the #4 pool. TEPCO announced this week that it will first attempt to remove 204 unused fuel rods, which are significantly cooler than used ones and should be less dangerous to move. That process could begin in July.
A panel studying TEPCO’s recent request for an average 10% rate increase for households is expected to delay approval until August or afterward. Panelists are reportedly concerned that TEPCO’s projected profit margins are excessive, and have questioned its payroll and operating costs. The utility recently revealed that 90% of its profits come from household customers, although they account for only 40% of its sales.
Efforts to Restart Oi Reactors
Highlighting financial concerns rather than safety, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced that he will make a final decision about restarting the Oi nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture as early as next week, citing the economy and requirements of the Japanese lifestyle. Noda made the statement as public television station NHK released a new poll showing that a majority (55%) of Oi residents and those in four surrounding towns, including Osaka City, oppose restarting the reactors. Seventy-eight percent said that they would instead agree to conserve energy this summer.
Nuclear Crisis Minister Goshi Hosono traveled to Fukui Prefecture on Wednesday. He plans to return on Saturday in continued efforts to convince local leaders of the Union of Kansai Governments to restart the idled Oi reactors, in spite of the fact that safety upgrades have yet to be completed. Greg McNevin of Greenpeace International said, “We have consistently said that none of the safety or emergency measures that have been called for by experts in the community has been completed. Our position is that this is being rushed.” The head of the Union initially said that the leaders there would accept the decision of the central government, but then quickly backpedaled after public outcry. Meanwhile, members of the Democratic Party of Japan have begun an active campaign against the restarts.
A research team from Fukushima University, led by meteorologist and professor Akira Watanabe, has released a new study showing that radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was distributed around the globe within just 40 days after it occurred last March. In May 2011, airborne radiation levels measured .0048 Bq/m3. The team’s findings were presented this week at a meeting of the Meteorological Society of Japan.
A new study by Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station reveals that bluefin tuna caught off the coast of California absorbed cesium-134 and -137 from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and carried it across the ocean. The tuna typically migrate across the Pacific Ocean, and the size of those caught indicated that they were born after last March. The cesium levels, though low (5 Bq/kg), show that sea life can carry radioactive nuclides faster than wind or water. The study will be published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.
More than a year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Japanese government said it finally will lower radiation standards for swimming to protect citizens from cesium contamination. Last year, the Environment Ministry declared that water containing less than 50 Bq/l was safe, but has now reduced that number to 10 Bq/l.
Japan’s Environment Ministry has released an annual white paper, in which it declared nuclear contamination the biggest environmental threat to Japan and other parts of the world. The Ministry recommends quickly developing far more effective methods of decontamination to protect the earth and human health.
Other Nuclear News
Officials at Southern California Edison’s (SCE) San Onofre nuclear power station admitted this week that a design flaw in sensors connected to backup generators at the plant meant that vibrations from an earthquake could have triggered their shutdown, placing reactors at risk of a nuclear meltdown. The faulty sensors have been in place since 1981. SCE said it has reported the issue to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and disabled the sensors. The plant has been shut down since January for numerous other unrelated safety infractions and equipment failures.